Friday, June 27, 2008

The Totalitarian Ego At Work

"Social psychologist Anthony Greenwald once described the self as being ruled by a 'totalitarian ego' that ruthlessly destroys information it doesn't want to hear and, and like all fascist leaders, rewrites history from the standpoint of the victor...If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember they were made by someone else."

Carol Travris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

In short, human beings are big-time, natural players in the self-justification game. If mistakes were made, they really were not mistakes, they were necessary and good actions, or they didn't happen at all if memory serves me right. If behavioral economics shows how we often make "irrational decisions," "dissonance theory" suggests that "to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity."

Reducing cognitive dissonance helps explain why it's so difficult for people to admit mistakes, especially when they are in the midst of action. What's the answer? I think that our propensity for self justification is a good argument for democratic debate and transparency. While we can train ourselves to partially overcome self justification (after all an old-fashioned definition of an intellectual is someone who can hold two contradictory ideas at the same time), I suspect the rowdy "commons" is the right antidote.

But how can the "commons" function within the walls and hierarchies of organizations of different kinds in which we spend much of our lives?

1 comment:

Josh said...

This doesn't directly answer your question but it is clear that independent monitoring organizations can and should be implemented to account for the problem you describe.

This is why the judicial branch in our system of government is unaccountable to both the voters AND the people who appoint its members.

Government and private watchdogs, outside the day-to-day hustle of our work, can see problems, inconsistencies and failures that are invisible from inside the bubble. We should focus some of our efforts on shaping the interactions between institutions in a way that increases accountability and minimizes the negative impacts of ego-preserving strategies.